Thursday, March 19, 2009
Dillard, other assessors support tax relief bill
By SUE WATSON
Members of the Mississippi Assessors/Collectors Association are urging the public to contact their supervisors, representatives and senators regarding a bill that died in the House of Representatives this session.
It would have increased the amount of special homestead exemption for those 65 and over or who are disabled, according to tax assessor Juanita Dillard.
She said tax assessors are hoping the House will muster the three-fifth’s vote needed to bring HB1704 back up this legislative session. The Senate version of the homestead bill, SB2061 and SB2300, passed this session. The association is publicizing this issue with hope that the House will reconsider this year, she said.
For a second year in a row the measure that would allow individuals 65 and over or disabled to not pay property taxes on the first $100,000 in appraised value of their land and home has failed to pass into law.
Dillard said the proposed raising of the existing exemption from $75,000 in appraised value to $100,000 for those 65 and over or disabled is critical for some homeowners who are living on limited incomes and whose property was reappraised in 2008 at about 20 percent higher, putting some individuals over the $75,000 exemption for the 2008 year.
What that means to the homesteader 65 and over or who is disabled is that they either have to pay some property taxes, while they had not been paying any, or their taxes went up substantially after the 2008 reappraisal, Dillard said. The legislation was particularly needed for counties where reappraisals of property values was mandated by the state Legislature last year, she said. That includes Marshall County.
Had the legislation passed, the number of applications for special homestead exemption at the $100,000 cut-off would have increased from 3,330 to 3,352 this year in Marshall County, Dillard said. Each year that the cap limit is not raised, more and more individuals reaching 65 or becoming disabled will be affected, she said.
“For many residents, their homestead credit stayed the same, their property value increased and they are now having to pay more taxes but their income has not increased,” Dillard said.
In the past, homesteaders have looked forward to getting property tax relief at age 65 to help offset their declining income, she said.
Individuals who reach 65 by January 1 on any given year can apply for the special exemption between January 1 and April 1 of the current year, Dillard said. If a person reaches 65 or who is disabled does not apply for the special exemption (pays no taxes on the first $75,000 in value of home and land) at the tax assessor’s office, they are charged the regular tax levy, she said.
“The tax assessor’s office does not know when a person reaches age 65 or becomes disabled and then qualifies for the special tax exemption,” she said.
A press release by the Mississippi Assessors/Collectors Association clarifies the issue as the association sees it.
“County tax assessors and collectors are calling on legislative leaders to take action this session to provide much needed tax relief to Mississippi’s homeowners, particularly those over 65 or disabled,” said Jimmie Ladner with the association.
The legislation that could have provided relief for homeowners over 65 passed by the Senate died in the House of Representatives due to fierce opposition led by the Mississippi Association of Supervisors (MAS), he said, although boards of supervisors in 20 counties that reappraised property values this year supported raising the homestead limits, he said.
“Although these counties were in support of relief for homeowners, the MAS leadership led the fight to kill the legislation,” Ladner said.
David Melton, Grenada County assessor/collector and president of the Assessors/Collectors Association stressed that every member of the association has advocated for increasing the homestead exemption levels.
“Raising the homestead exemption levels is periodically necessary in order to keep tax burdens from being shifted onto homeowners when property is reassessed,” he said. “Without action from our state Legislature, we are afraid some of our most vulnerable simply will not be able to pay the increased taxes on their homes.”
He supported suspending the deadline rule so the House could reconsider the $100,000 homestead limit (add it back into the bill).
The fact that a county reappraises its property periodically is not the issue, Ladner said.
“The issue arises when homestead exemption does not grow along with the assessed values in a county,” he said. “If the Legislature fails to increase homestead exemption levels as home values rise, what occurs is a ‘shift’ of the county tax burden into single-family, owner-occupied, class 1 property, that is the homeowners.”
Ladner is tax assessor/collector for Hancock County and has seen tragedy close up and understands the issue of rising property taxes.
“It is hard enough to face my county’s taxpayers who have suffered so much from recent storms (Katrina) but then to add to their horror story the additional concerns of whether or not they will be able to pay their taxes is simply not right,” he said. “It is time for all county officials to consider its citizens, its elderly and its disabled first. I fail to understand why any local elected official did not whole-heartedly support this legislation.”
Melton said the association supports legislation that would increase the homestead exemption levels in the same year that a county undergoes reappraisal.
“By doing it simultaneously, the increased assessed values offset the additional exemption granted,” he said. “Despite what the Mississippi Association of Supervisors may wish you to believe, passing this measure will provide our elderly, disabled, and struggling young families some property tax relief without hurting the county one bit.”
Dillard said she “agrees wholeheartedly with Melton and Ladner” for the need for legislation that would provide tax relief (homestead credit) especially for the elderly and disabled.
“It has been a deep disappointment for me that this legislation did not pass,” she said. “I was hopeful that this legislation would pass last year when we were mandated to reappraise our county property. It was badly needed to offset the increase in our property values. After the defeat of this measure last year, many of our state legislators received calls expressing the need for the increase in homestead credit. We were led by them to believe it would pass, but once again it has failed.”
Dillard called for better communication and cooperation between all levels of government inlcuding the State Tax Commission, concerning bills pending in the Senate and House of Representatives and how they will affect citizens at the county level.
“Our senators and representatives need to contact the local governing officials, including the tax assessor and collector, when a bill is pending, to see how that bill would impact their county,” she said. “One organization pulling one way and another organization pulling the opposite way is no way to look out for the best interests of the citizens of this state.
“Our citizens are suffering foreclosures, fixed incomes, no incomes, and now higher property taxes. There has to be a solution.”
Ronnie Joe Bennett, president of the Marshall County Board of Supervisors, said he did not agree with the state association of supervisors leadership on pulling the increased exemption (up to $100,000) for seniors and the disabled out of the bill.
“We couldn’t afford to fight to keep the exemption at $75,000,” he said, “as many people in Marshall County were affected. I look at it this way, we haven’t been collecting taxes off these people whose property was appraised at or below $75,000. So the county didn’t need the extra taxes from them created by the reappraisal. And if the county hadn’t had to do the reappraisal, their tax situation would not have changed.
“I had a guy come up to me and say he had not been paying any property taxes and after the 2008 reappraisal he had to pay $147 a year. It is people like him who needed the special homestead exemption for 65 and over increased to $100,000.”
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